Friday, September 16, 2005

Please Leave Us Alone

It never occurred to me to write anything like a 9-11 remembrance or commemorative blog. All of us — New Yorkers, that is, particularly those of us who lived in lower Manhattan — had our time of telling our stories over and over and over. Something between group therapy and a reunion of combat veterans, we had — and needed — our closed circle of recounting. I don't know of any of us who said or thought of anyone who wasn't there that they just couldn't understand, but I do know that we told our 9-11 stories to each other in a manner very different from the one in which we explained our experiences to outsiders. It's a tight knot tying together those who have inhaled the ashes of their incinerated neighbors.

After about a year, we stopped. Occasionally, something would spark a recollection of that day or that time and one of us would begin again. I had just come out of the subway when I first saw smoke ... But something would stop us. There'd be an embarrassed moment for the recounter and the rest. Eyes averted and we'd all think, yeah, we remember, we were all there, we all have our story, that time is over.

So it's in this context that I hope you'll understand why it is I move on to the next blog as soon as I've read about how on that morning you were glued to the TV set or shocked when the first images appeared on the laptop or almost drove off the freeway when the special report interrupted the classic rock block.

I visited Dachau when I was 19. I was in Europe all summer and had a Eurail pass and found myself in Munich at some point and well why not? I took a series of photographs of the well-preserved concentration camp. I no longer have these photographs but can still see them: black-and-white, stark contrast, all sharp angles and barbed wire. This was partly adolescence but it was also well within a cultural side current of the time: Factory Records, Fassbinder, Syberberg, Bowie in Berlin, and, before long, Reagan in Bitburg.

I destroyed those photographs eventually, as much out of respect for the living as for the dead. I was shocked at Dachau, but not for being in the presence of institutionalized murder. What was shocking to me was to arrive in Dachau and see that it was mostly just a suburb of Munich. The shock wasn't oh, people died here, but oh, people live here. I wondered for a moment how anyone could live within a stone's throw of what was not so long ago a concentration camp, but I also wondered how I and all these other tourists could be so disrespectful as to turn someone's neighborhood into an opportunity for at best emotional catharsis and at worst gawking at one of history's greatest tragedies.

There are two ways of being a tourist. One is to engage with the living place; the other is to consume its symbols. We all do the latter to some extent. Almost everyone going to Paris for the first time will pay some sort of visit to the Eiffel Tower. But few tourists will ever converse with a Parisian or experience the everyday life of the city in even the simplest of ways. I see this daily in New York — tourists snapping pictures of each other in front of everything from the Empire State Building to CBGB. Sometimes a tourist will actually engage with one of us or eat in one of our restaurants rather than the Olive Gardens and the like that are here to give them comfort in a strange land, but most often they don't. Most often they come to experience a New York independent of New Yorkers and the places we go and the things we do.

For the past four years I have felt more invisible in my city than ever. Now, tourists come to my home to gawk at death just the way I did in Dachau. My commute to work by bicycle takes me through Battery Park, very near the terminal for the Statue of Liberty ferry. The park is full of vendors selling junk, some of which is supposed to be Louis Vuitton or Gucci, but most of which is 9-11 commemorative crap. Every day I see tourists buying a shoddily-made booklet of 9-11 photographs called TRAGEDY! They seem almost without exception to be as indifferent to the living city around them as they are gripped by the images of death and destruction.

9-11-2005 was a work day for me. Riding alongside the former site of the World Trade Center, I found the West Side Highway clogged with bikers, hundreds of them. A 9-11 commemoration: hundreds of obese bikers making as much noise and burning as much gasoline and fouling the air as much as possible. On a dare I could not have suggested a less appropriate or more tasteless commemoration, but neither could I imagine a more American one: unless we conspicuously consume as much of everything as possible the terrorists will have won.

Some 20 yards on I had to get off my bike because the path had been occupied by several TV news crews and their equipment. There were symbols to be created and consumed — everyday life would have to wait.

Later that night, a neighbor came into my bar and said, you'll see, within a few years there will be 9-11 white sales at the department stores.

Americans loathe and fear cities, this one more than most. But they've found a use for us now.


Blogger xian said...

Wow. Some of my students from NYC were telling me this summer how weird it was that Americans not from NYC were using 9/11 and "love" for New York as an excuse to pick a political stance so hateful to the people of New York and other major cities.

You captured the commodification of 9/11 brilliantly.

3:26 PM  
Blogger zandperl said...

I'm a native New Yorker originally, and my parents are still there. I visited a month after the event, and was shocked to see mothers raising their children over the barricade to see! New York isn't the holes where the towers used to be, it is the "Go Mets!" sign I saw spraypainted on a nearby scaffold.

6:53 PM  
Blogger abbiapple said...

...these are the same people who jam traffic and gawk, hoping to get a glimpse of some carnage.

Thank you for your perspective. I've often wondered how New York natives felt...

I wonder if there will be a similar sentiment in New Orleans.

4:27 AM  
Blogger Chandira said...

Great post!

To hear from a New Yorker, I always have to feel embarassed by the rest of us and our well meaning but trite utterings about it. Which is why I stopped 'newsblogging'.

I felt a little like that when England got bombed in July, and all the US seemed to be saying prayers for us. All well and good, but it's like when you see a kid fall over, and the parents go rushing over, all concerned and screeching, and THAT is what freaks the kid out, not the actual falling over.
Not that it's comparable, but even so, I hope you get my point.
You'll get no gawping from me.

I htink New Yorkers are the msot like the English in some ways, tougher than we're given credit for, and not needing pampering condolences.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Milt Bogs said...

A very powerful piece of writing. I'd feel the same way.

4:10 PM  
Blogger doris said...

You seem to have a clump of Brits commenting on your posting, us all echoing similar thoughts.... !!!

This is a very interesting perspective and thank you for writing from your point of view as one of the native New Yorkers.

I believe one should never forget these things and it is right to remember, but also to remember what is good and living or survived.

1:57 PM  
Blogger Daedalus said...

Excellent post. I have never been to New York- I've been to 31 states in the US but never NYC. One of the reasons is that when I visit, I want to live it for awhile. I don't want to do the dash in, click, click, go home.

I've never been a fan of death tourism. I remember visiting Auchwitz on one of the most beautiful days I've ever witnessed; a crisp September blue sky pretended like such horrible death did not take place there. The air seemed fresher, the mountains clearly visible in the distance. I remember thinking how strange it was that Auchwitz was a town rather than just a death camp. I remember feeling guilty for enjoying the beautiful day.

People are so busy dwelling on death that they fail to enjoy life. I'd rather sit in a coffee shop for hours while visiting a city than seeing its memories of death. You are so right.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Pat Kirby said...

>On a dare I could not have suggested a less appropriate or more tasteless commemoration, but neither could I imagine a more American one: unless we conspicuously consume as much of everything as possible the terrorists will have won.

So true.

It seems that some of this is media created. A couple hundred years ago, news of a disaster of 911 or even Katrina's magnitude would have taken time to disseminate throughout the country. But the time it reached my neck of the woods (New Mexico), for instance, months might have passed between the incident.

Now the media allows us to witness the event as it unfolds. And I think, wallow in the pain to point of pathology. You know? The folks who speak about being "glued to the television," their voice breathless and a peculiar note of pride in the tone?

Of course, I find it amusing that the most rabidly pro-Bush, kill 'em all types, live in some little backwater in a state like Idaho or Wyoming. They shake their fists at the sky and go on about the day that changed their lives. Huh?

Anyway, great posting.

6:29 PM  
Blogger molly said...

thanks. well said. i started to write today and actually looked to your blog for something more profound. it's worth more than a conversation but a ridiculous "cheer" from a team seems downright wrong.

5:00 PM  

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